Problems may occur anywhere in the respiratory system – from a tickle in the nose producing a sneeze, to trauma in the chest causing laboured breathing and clinical shock. Infections and disorders can occur in either the upper respiratory system, including the nose and windpipe, or in the chest and lungs – the lower respiratory tract. Irrespective of the cause, virtually all conditions of the respiratory system cause obvious changes in your dog’s regular breathing pattern.

Sneezing and discharges from the nose may be caused by minor conditions like hay fever, by more significant problems, such as a foreign object lodged in a nostril, or by major problems like nasal tumours. Sneezing itself is not an illness, but a reflex action that rids the nasal passages of something the body considers to be irritating.

Treating a nosebleed
If sneezing is particularly intense, this can lead to a nosebleed. Follow these guidelines if your dog’s nose is bleeding:

  • Keep your dog quiet and confined;
  • Apply a cold compress, such as a bag of frozen peas, to the top of the nose between the eyes and nostrils, and hold in place for five minutes;
  • Cover the bleeding nostril with absorbent material;
  • Do not muzzle your dog;
  • Do not tilt your dog’s head back to prevent blood dripping;

Coughing is often triggered by inflammation or damage to the lining of the air passages, and it removes unwanted material from the windpipe and bronchi. Coughing is commonly caused by allergy, pollution, infection, or foreign material in the air passages. Other less common causes include inhalation or ingestion of poisonous substances, fluid in the chest cavity, worms, heart conditions, chest diseases or injuries, tumours, or a collapsed windpipe. If your dog has been coughing for more than a day, or if the cough recurs, contact your veterinary surgeon for advice.

Canine cough
The most common and serious cause of contagious coughing in dogs is infection by the bacterium Bordetella bronchiseptica, resulting in a condition known as canine cough (kennel cough or laryngotracheitis). Affected dogs develop a harsh, dry cough about five days after contact with a carrier of the disease. Spasms of coughing can be triggered in affected individuals by the mildest pressure of a collar on the inflamed windpipe. Canine cough is most serious in the debilitated and the very young, causing a loss of appetite, depression, and in some cases, nasal discharge. If your dog is visiting an area where there is a high risk of contracting canine cough, talk to your vet about vaccinating your dog against Bordetella with an aerosol intranasal vaccine.

Foreign object in the nose
If you can see a foreign object, such as a blade of grass, lodged in your dog’s nose, carefully remove it with tweezers. If you cannot remove the object get immediate veterinary help to do so.

Breathing problems
There are a variety of reasons why a dog may be suffering from breathing difficulties. The majority are serious and require prompt action. They include: physical obstructions preventing air intake, chest injury, pneumonia, tumours, trauma, heart failure, poisoning, an allergic reaction, pain, smoke inhalation, heatstroke, a collapsed windpipe or lung, or a torn diaphragm. If a respiratory problem involves the windpipe or lungs, the cause may be obvious, but if the disorder is associated with a heart condition, for example, it may develop more insidiously. The early stages of heart failure – causing a “throat-clearing” cough and slightly more laboured breathing � are easy to dismiss as relatively unimportant, so any breathing problem should be reported to your vet.

Common types of breathing problems include:

  • Rapid, shallow breathing: dogs breathe faster after exercise, but also in response to dangerous conditions, such as shock, poisoning, heatstroke, or pain. Contact your vet immediately if your dog’s breathing rate has suddenly increased without exercise.
  • Laboured breathing: breathing difficulties are always a cause for concern, and are usually accompanied by rapid breathing. Possible triggers include heart failure, lung disease, a build-up of fluid in the chest (pleural effusion), trauma (such as a torn diaphragm), and tumours. If your dog is having difficulty breathing, contact your vet immediately.
  • Noisy breathing: noisy breathing sounds are always significant, and may be caused by obstructions, such as foreign bodies, affecting the upper respiratory tract, or paralysis of the vocal cords. If your dog is breathing noisily, contact your vet the same day.
  • Wheezing: this is not as common in dogs as it is in people or cats. When it does occur, it usually indicates a lung problem; an inflammation to the bronchi of the lungs (bronchitis) caused by allergy or infection. Wheezing dogs should receive veterinary attention within 24 hours.
  • Choking: this is an immediate emergency and should be differentiated from gagging, which may look similar but is not life-threatening. If your dog is choking, do not wait for veterinary help. Safely try to remove the cause of choking , but take great care � a choking dog is likely to be in great distress, and is liable to bite.

Swallowing objects is not the only cause of choking. An allergic reaction to an insect bite or sting in the mouth may cause the tongue to swell. Physical injuries to the neck or throat may cause swelling, blocking the airway. A dog may also choke on its own vomit. If

you suspect any of these causes of choking, seek urgent veterinary help. Try to minimize your dog’s risk of choking. Dogs, and especially pups, chew anything as a natural method of investigation, to relieve boredom, to exercise the teeth and gums, or simply just for the fun of it. Never leave small chewable articles where dogs can reach them. Pups in particular may swallow small objects, and are at risk of choking on them. Never give chicken bones to your dog, and be careful to remove any bones from fish – small bones can become lodged in a dog’s throat, causing the dog to choke.